Off Broadway

Aisle Say On The Square: The Original Should Sister Plus One

Aisle Say On The Square: The Original Should Sister Plus One

 

Rosetta and Marie

Rosetta and Marie The originals

Though I have a healthy enough appreciation for gospel music, I’m not too conversant with its history (except in the most general, nonspecific terms) or its signature, root personalities and artists; so, not having read the press release material in advance (I like to avoid spoilers if I can), I attended George Brant’s Marie and Rosetta not knowing about Rosetta Tharpe (Kecia) Lewis, oft-cited as “the original soul sister” and her protégé Marie Knight (Rebecca Naomi Lewis); and it took me a little while to catch on that they were actual historical figures of music world significance. (I almost typed of note.)

Kecia Lewis, Rebecca Naomi Lewis

Kecia Lewis, Rebecca Naomi Lewis

There’s a certain value to ignorance because of the backdoor way in which it starts. Marie is doing Rosetta’s makeup in the back room of a church, filled with coffins. The setting, so it says in the program, is Mississippi, 1946; and after a fashion, so it is (that qualification makes sense later). Tharpe, having been impressed by Knight singing backup at a Mahalia Jackson concert, has called her in to be a performing partner on the road (the premise for this scene is absolutely true) and what we are witness to is their first private one-on-one, the older woman laying down the rules and parameters, the younger one rising to an even greater honor than she at first thought was being bestowed.

After that, and I don’t mean this critically, it’s not much of a play, in the sense that there’s story or much in the way of conflict. Marie and Rosetta fairly quickly segues into being the jukebox musical that dast not speak its name, in which the two ladies develop their relationship through exchanging biographical information and musical observations between singing their hearts out and rocking the rafters, which is pretty much enough to send the audience, quite understandably, into paroxysms of wild delight. It’s all incredibly well and full-heartedly performed, under the direction of Neil Pepe. This includes some brilliantly rehearsed and choreographed moves for both behind a piano and for Rosetta behind a guitar, that most of the time convey the illusion that the ladies are really accompanying themselves. (The instrumental music is indeed live, but happens behind the backdrop.)

All of which leads to a sort of twist ending (virtually anything else I say about it would be hinty enough to spoil it) that wraps up the relationship, the love behind it, and the dramatic encounter, such as it is, with a neat bow.

Marie and Rosetta is a nice surprise sleeper (a hugely ironic misnomer, considering that sleeping is the last thing you’d do at it) for the top of the season, even though there isn’t much to it. Unless you count about 90 minutes of unalloyed joy.

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David Spencer is an award-winning composer-lyricist, lyricist-librettist, author and musical theatre teacher. He has written music and lyrics for the Richard Rodgers Development Award-winning musical The Fabulist, which also contributed to his winning a Kleban lyrics award and several Gilman & Gonzalez-Falla Theatre Foundation grants. He is also lyricist-librettist for two musicals with composer Alan Menken: Weird Romance (WPA 1992, York 2004) and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, which had its sold out, extended world premiere in Montreal in Summer 2015; cast album release soon. He made his professional debut in 1984 with the English Adaptation of La Bohéme at the Public Theatre; and he has since written music and lyrics for Theatreworks/USA’s all-new, award-winning Young Audience versions of The Phantom of the Opera (1996) and Les Misérables (1999) (book and direction for both by Rob Barron). Currently he is writing book, music and lyrics for a musical based on the iconic Russian novel The Golden Calf. Spencer’s published books are the Alien Nation novel Passing Fancy (Pocket, 1994), The Musical Theatre Writer’s Survival Guide (Heinemann, 2005, a regularly reprinted industry standard) and the script of Weird Romance (Samuel French, 1993). He is on faculty and teaches at the BMI-Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop and has taught at HB Studio, the Workshop Studio Theater and Goldsmith’s College in London. His primary professional affiliations are BMI, The Dramatists Guild and The International Association of Media Tie-in Writers.

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